IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

What are essential oils? Our guide to essential oils uses and benefits

We also outlined some of the potential benefits.
/ Source: TODAY

From aromatherapy for relaxation to topical applications, essential oils have been gaining in popularity as a remedy to common problems.

New York-based dietitian Maya Feller stopped by the show with an overview of everything you need to know about essential oils.

What are essential oils?

"Essential oils are complex mixtures (or) compounds produced by aromatic plants," Feller said. "To get the essential oil, the plant must undergo a process that extracts the essence. This is usually done via distillation or mechanical pressing of the plant."

Feller said it’s important to do your research, and work with a health care professional to understand proper dosing. Check out the label before you buy any essential oil to confirm it fits the purpose you have in mind: Is it a concentrate? Is it edible? Is it for use in a diffuser?

She also advised users be mindful of quality. Look for high quality options that are free from solvents and additives.

Cary Caster, the founder of essential oil company 21 Drops, agreed that quality is of high importance. "At the end of the day they're liquid chemicals," Caster told TODAY. She recommended looking for companies that do batch testing and buying organic if you can.

Caster also cautioned that some can be dangerous for pets, even if just diffused throughout the house, so it's important to do your research if you have furry friends at home.

It's important to note that essential oils are not tightly regulated by the FDA, so there isn't a lot of hard data about efficacy, and if you have a chronic health condition, you should consult your health care professional before use.

How to use essential oils

According to Feller, there are three ways to use essential oils: They can be used for aromatherapy, applied to the skin or ingested (either directly or through capsules or drops).

The safety of ingesting essential oils, however, is up for debate. Caster warned not to consume them because, "by the time it actually gets to your stomach, it’s been broken down and done a lot of damage along the way."

Feller offered advice if consumption is your primary goal. "If you're looking for an edible essential oil, it must be food-grade, meant for human consumption," she said. "The FDA has a list of essential oils that are listed as generally regarded as safe. With that said, the use of essential oils still needs to be individualized based on a person's age as well as health status."

For direct application, it's important to know which essential oils are safe on the skin. For example, Feller recommends using peppermint oil topically only if it's mixed into a carrier oil like shea butter, castor oil or olive oil.

Caster also recommended diluting essential oils in jojoba oil, fractionated coconut oil or olive oil when applying to the skin. She suggested starting with 5 drops per ounce of carrier oil and increasing the ratio to no more than 15 drops per ounce. She also mentioned that over time users may develop sensitizations to the pure oils if applied to the skin.

For the most immediate response, Caster said inhalation is best. She recommended putting a few drops on a tissue or in a plastic inhaler. Caster said doing this in a large room isn't as effective because you're mostly getting water vapor.

Some do, however, still choose to use a diffuser in smaller rooms.

Urpower Essential Oil Diffuser, $17 (originally $25), Amazon

This is one of Amazon's best-selling diffusers, with over 31,000 reviews. One of our writers tried it and said, "It's perfect for small spaces like a bathroom, cubicle or kitchen."

Oregano Oil

Oregano oil is generally ingested, according to Feller, but it can also be used as a topical oil or in aromatherapy. She described it as a more concentrated form of the oregano plant you would typically use to cook and said it can potentially help with inflammation and gut health as an antioxidant and antibacterial.

It's also important to be careful when applying oregano oil to the skin. According to Caster, it's classified as a "hot oil" which means it can burn the skin if applied undiluted.

Oil of Oregano, $18, Amazon

This oil is Amazon's choice for food-grade oregano oil and while we haven't personally tried it, the product received 97 percent positive feedback from 58 reviewers. The company said it can be used to support a healthy immune system.

Lemon Essential Oil

Lemon essential oil can be used in food or as aromatherapy. "It obviously has a great fresh and clean scent," said Feller. "It's in so many products because of the aroma."

Lemon essential oil is also a photosensitive oil, which means it can cause skin irritation when exposed to the sun, according to Caster.

Feller suggested it can be used as an antioxidant, air purifier and mood booster.

Zongle Certified Organic Lemon Essential Oil, $13, Amazon

You can also find non-food-grade lemon essential oil options, like this one from Thrive Market

Amazon's choice for food-grade lemon essential oil, this one can be ingested, used in aromatherapy or as a topical oil. Though we haven't tried it ourselves, 93 percent of the customer reviews were positive.

Peppermint Oil

Peppermint oil can be ingested, used topically or in aromatherapy, but Feller cautioned that you must understand the dosing when ingesting. "It can exacerbate upper (gastro intestinal) problems, like heartburn or the more serious GERD."

She said if you're using peppermint oil topically, it should be used in a carrier oil and not just as a concentrate.

Feller listed some of the potential benefits as easing headaches, muscle tension and boosting moods.

Zongle Peppermint Oil, $20, Amazon

Similar options available from Target.

This is not a food-grade oil, so it's better suited for topical application or aromatherapy. We haven't tried this ourselves, but the company suggested diffusing three to four drops of the oil in a diffuser.

Lavender Essential Oil

Many people are familiar with lavender essential oil because it's a popular scent that can be used along with other essential oils. Feller said it can be ingested or used in aromatherapy and potential benefits include stress relief, antihistamine, easing inflammation and stabilizing moods.

Viva Naturals Lavender Essential Oil, $13, Amazon

Similar options available from Walmart and Target

This best-selling lavender essential oil is certified organic, but it's not food-grade, so it could be a good choice if aromatherapy is your primary purpose. It's racked up 99 percent positive reviews from 350 customers.

Argan Oil

You may have heard of argan oil because it's a popular hair moisturizer and it's often used as a massage oil. While not technically an essential oil, it can be used both internally and in aromatherapy, according to Feller, and potential benefits include helping with heart health, relaxation and providing vitamin E.

Certified Organic Moroccan Argan Oil, $13, Amazon

Similar options available from Sephora

With over 1,500 reviews on Amazon, this argan oil seems like a great option if you're looking for an oil to nourish your hair and scalp.

For more home products we love, check out:

To discover more deals, shopping tips and budget-friendly product recommendations, download the new TODAY app and subscribe to our Stuff We Love newsletter!